Momentum builds for hybrids and electric cars; Will you be ready?

Are hybrid and electric vehicles going to be a viable market for the automotive aftermarket?

Automotive industry observers were surprised this week by the number of electric and hybrid vehicles introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany. The Frankfurt show includes high-performance, luxury versions of existing vehicles, such as Volkswagen’s electric Golf compact, as VehicleServicePros reported Tuesday. Analyst Christoph Stuermer at IHS automotive called Frankfurt "the first full-throttle electric propulsion show" that's about "getting electric drive cars out of the eco-nerd, tree-hugger segment and into the cool group," according to the Associated Press.

Aftermarket industry leaders don’t doubt that the demand for hybrids is for real. Yesterday, several aftermarket equipment manufacturers and national automotive service chains attended an update on the hybrid service and repair opportunity at the fall technical meeting of the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association and the Motorist Assurance Program at DePaul University’s O’Hare Campus in Chicago.

Tom Rayk, a training manager for NAPA Autotech, described hybrid service opportunities that aftermarket shops should be planning to offer if they want to increase their bottom lines. These include preventative maintenance, battery maintenance, transmission service, cooling system service, air filter service, brake service, tire service, wheel alignment, EVAP and emissions testing and more. Rayk reviewed some of the unique needs of hybrid vehicle service, including some hybrid tools. These include a Fluke insulation tester for diagnosis and testing of the insulation of HV circuits and components, a hybrid-compatible scan tool, a special belt tensioner tool and high voltage gloves.

Signs of growth are emerging with greater frequency for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Last week, Ford Motor Co. reported its best August for electric cars with 8,292 sales, marking a 288 percent gain over August 2012. Ford’s plug-in hybrids, Fusion Energi and C-MAX Energi, posted their best months year to date with 600 and 621 units sold, respectively. Ford C-MAX hybrid sales jumped 12 percent in August while its Fusion Hybrid and C-MAX hybrid hit regional sales records in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Seattle.

Carmakers would not be investing in it if they don’t have good reason to believe the market has a future. Daimler AG chief executive Dieter Zetsche told the Associated Press in Frankfurt that carmakers don’t expect a short-term return on these investments, but they believe the investments are necessary to “be in the game tomorrow.”

Gearing up to service these vehicles requires some new tools and training. There are also more safety considerations involved, including model-specific safety precautions.

But gearing up for hybrids and electric vehicles doesn’t require an entire new tool and equipment arsenal. The vehicles are being developed by mainstream carmakers, meaning shops already have many of the tools they need to service the new vehicles.

Furthermore, the alternative fuels market is growing slowly, giving shops time to train and to learn what new tools are needed. Industry conventions, such as the AAPEX show this fall in Las Vegas, include education sessions on alternative fuels. There are also numerous trainers specializing in electric and hybrid repairs to help shops and technicians.

Changing technology is a key reason that shop owners and technicians need to attend industry trade shows regularly. Carmakers are serious about alternative fuels and other innovations, and the aftermarket must be ready before the new technology arrives.